We recently celebrated the 81st anniversary of Social Security, a program that continues to be a lifeline for millions of seniors, including women like Zoe Jarvis, who I think of whenever I hear calls for cuts to so-called “entitlements.”
Zoe lives in Waianae. She worked as a bookkeeper and a property manager for more than 40 years, during which she raised two children. Her employers never offered a pension or contributed to a 401k plan. Zoe thought that Social Security, along with a modest income from her personal investments, would provide a comfortable retirement. But circumstances intervened.
Zoe lost nearly everything when Wall Street crashed the economy in 2008. Since then, she has relied entirely on Social Security and her dwindling savings to pay her bills.
But like tens of thousands of seniors across Hawaii, Zoe is finding it increasingly hard to meet the rising cost of rent, food and electricity. The balance of her savings account is nearing zero.
Stories like Zoe’s are why it is so unfair when my Republican colleagues in Congress call for cuts to “entitlements.” Social Security is not an entitlement. It is the most successful anti-poverty program in American history — one which we all pay into because of our shared goal of preventing millions of seniors from living in abject poverty.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Social Security for millions of seniors across the country, 44.1 percent of whom would live in poverty without it. In Hawaii, Social Security is the only source of income for 25 percent of the more than 200,000 seniors who receive it. And for people like Zoe, Social Security is just not going as far as it used to.
Social Security beneficiaries have been impacted especially hard in recent years by inadequate cost of living increases — including no increase at all for this year.
This is particularly damaging for Hawaii’s seniors, whose fixed incomes are ill-equipped to cope with the exponential cost of housing and other necessities.
And the way the government calculates annual cost of living increases is making things worse. Right now, the government uses a formula that relies on products and services that seniors don’t typically purchase — such as computers and cars.
Last year, I introduced the Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act with Sen. Jeff Merkely (D-Ore.) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) to permanently fix the way we calculate the cost of living adjustment to more accurately measure the expenses our seniors incur on a daily basis — like buying food and medicine. This fair, simple change would mean an increase in Social Security benefits for our seniors.
This increase is particularly important for women, who make over $400,000 less than men do over the course of a 40-year career due to the wage gap. This outrage resurfaces again at retirement, where women collect smaller Social Security checks.
We will pay for this benefit increase by eliminating the arbitrary cap that keeps millionaires and billionaires from paying their fair share into the Social Security Trust Fund.
Right now, all Americans stop contributing payroll taxes into the Social Security Trust Fund once they earn $118,500 in a given year. Unbelievably, some CEOs and other corporate executives earn this much money in a day. It is deeply unfair that 94 percent of working Americans contribute 6.2 percent of their paycheck into Social Security in every paycheck while the richest 6 percent of our country does not. Imagine, someone making $118,500 in a month can stop paying into the Social Security Trust Fund for the rest of the year! My bill would fix this unfairness permanently.
We also need to make up for many years in which Social Security benefits did not keep pace with rising prices. Last year, I joined with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to introduce the SAVE Benefits Act. This bill would provide a one-time increase of Social Security benefits by 3.9 percent, or about $581 per year, and would lift an additional 1 million seniors out of poverty. We’d pay for this increase by closing a tax loophole that allows corporations to write off executive bonuses as a business expense.
Both my bill and Sen. Warren’s are pragmatic, paid for, and help those who need it most.
Last year, I got a letter from a man in Wahiawa who shared a very similar story to Zoe’s. He told me that he “finds it incredible that there are people who actually believe that Social Security is too generous.” I couldn’t agree with him more. We need to stand together not only to prevent these cuts, but to make the Social Security system fairer, resulting in expanded benefits for millions of seniors like Zoe, who are counting on us.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) served as a member of the Hawaii House of Representatives from 1985 to 1995 and as the Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii from 1994 to 2002. She was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District from 2007 to 2013 and has served in the U.S. Senate since 2013.